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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Josh Taylor

NBN upgrade to single business in Barnaby Joyce’s electorate to cost $630,000

Contractors work on the NBN network
Contractors work on the NBN. Costa Group’s tomato plant in Guyra received $520,000 under the federal regional connectivity program. Photograph: Brendan Esposito/AAP

Building a single fibre connection to a business in Barnaby Joyce’s New England electorate is expected to cost more than $600,000, almost double the original estimate, documents obtained by Guardian Australia reveal.

In February, Guardian Australia reported that the ASX-listed Costa Group’s tomato plant in Guyra received more than $500,000 under the federal government’s regional connectivity program to switch from satellite NBN to a fibre-to-the-premises connection.

Joyce wrote a letter in support of the project in 2020, when he was a backbencher. So far it is the only fibre-to-the-premises conversion as part of the $100m grants program.

In the September 2020 letter, now obtained under freedom of information laws, Joyce said the upgrade was “urgently needed to address the continued increases in bandwidth required at Costa’s Guyra facilities for the many software and online systems utilised to support the company’s high-tech practices and equipment used to achieve greater yield efficiencies”.

Joyce said Costa had committed to providing 25% of the project’s cost, or $84,500 of the estimated total of $338,000, with $253,500 being sought from taxpayers.

NBN Co was subsequently allocated $520,000 to build the fibre network for Costa’s premises as part of the $117m awarded in the first round of the grant program.

Costa told Guardian Australia this week its contribution would now be $110,000, putting the total cost at $630,000.

A spokesperson for Costa said the initial estimated cost was provided by NBN Co, and the amount sought in the grant application was the final estimate quoted by NBN Co.

A spokesperson for the communications department said all proposals under the program were competitively assessed, and funding recommendations made to the then regional communications minister Mark Coulton were based on the assessment criteria, including the economic and social benefits to the region.

The department has previously stated that other homes in the area would be able to connect to the service once it was up and running.

The spokesperson declined to provide more information on the project, stating the total cost and other grant information was commercial-in-confidence.

NBN Co confirmed the total cost of the joint federal government, Costa and Armidale council project was $630,000 and construction was expected to commence in June.

In February a spokesperson for Joyce defended the letter of support.

“This was done in his capacity as federal member for New England and in recognition of the benefits the project could deliver to the region, of which there were plenty,” the spokesperson said.

In Joyce’s register of interests, he discloses that his partner, Vikki Campion, has shares in Costa Group, although it does not indicate how many she holds.

Joyce did not disclose in the letter that Campion held shares in the company.

Asked in February whether Joyce had disclosed the shares in the letter, a spokesperson said: “Any suggestion Mr Joyce acted inappropriately is off base and only serves to perpetuate the anti-regions campaign the Labor party is running.”

There is no suggestion of any impropriety by Joyce or Campion.

In a cover letter to the support letter, Joyce noted that the communications minister, Paul Fletcher, was planning to visit the plant. The visit never took place, Guardian Australia has confirmed.

Fletcher has previously criticised Labor’s election proposal to extend full fibre upgrades to another 1.4m homes as “more wasteful government spending of taxpayers’ money”.

This week NBN Co announced the first 50,000 fibre-to-the-node homes would be able to upgrade to fibre-to-the-premises as part of the Coalition’s policy to get 1.6m homes upgraded to full fibre by the end of 2023.

The federal government also announced a further investment of $750m – including $480m from taxpayers – to upgrade NBN Co’s fixed wireless network to improve speeds using 5G, and transfer up to 120,000 homes from the satellite service to fixed wireless.

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